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Caligula   F

Image Entertainment / Penthouse Films International

Year Released: 1979
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Director: Tinto Brass (sure, OK, we'll say Tinto)
Writer: Gore Vidal
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John Steiner, Guido Mannari, Sir John Freakin' Gielgud.

Review by Rob Vaux

Final word on Caligula -- the infamous historical epic considered by many to be the worst movie of all time -- probably comes from Malcolm McDowell, who played the title character and who contributes an amusing audio commentary on the DVD set released at the beginning of this month. His first words as he sits down are "God help us," and indeed, for the perversely curious interested in wading through all three discs included in the deluxe edition, his admonition makes for as clear a warning as possible. You'd best cowboy up before hitting "Play." Things get pretty ugly.

The benefits of the DVD arrive as a sort of after-action report. In addition to McDowell, we receive voice-over commentaries from co-star Helen Mirren and the film's on-set reporter Erich Volkman, as well as documentary interviews with original director Tinto Brass and other key contributors. Two of the most pertinent figures -- producer Bob Guccione and screenwriter Gore Vidal -- appear only intermittently, but their presence is felt in anecdotes, archival footage, and Vidal's original script, which can be read on DVD-ROM. When combined with two extended versions of the film in the collection (one basically with money shots, one without), they provide an informative and intermittently entertaining postmortem on how so much could have gone so badly wrong.

As for the film itself? Um, yeah, there's that "worst ever made" thing. Having sat through various permutations five times (Jesus God FIVE TIMES!!!) in the last week, I can't easily disagree with the assessment. There are vague, murky remnants of story, performance, and plot among the opulent detritus onscreen. Caligula becomes Emperor of Rome after murdering his grandfather Tiberius (Peter O'Toole), engages in four years of unprecedented debauchery, and is assassinated when those close to him finally decide he's a danger to himself and others. But those bare bones are all we really get, smothered beneath a literal orgy of sex, violence, and conspicuous consumption run amok. Great thundering waves of it deluge us from all directions, destroying anything but the sheer freak show spectacle vomiting forth from the screen. Caligula drools over his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), rapes a pair of newlyweds at their marriage feast, and beds his horse after awarding the animal an official post in his government. He jettisons unspeakable amounts of fluids from every conceivable orifice. He castrates men and feeds the severed bits to dogs. He opens a brothel featuring the wives of Imperial Senators, and beheads traitors with a device that can only be described as a Nudie Lawnmower. Every extra is shot in the full monty and most are engaged in constant acts of uncensored copulation: pornography rarely gets harder than we see here.

Production designer Danilo Donati provides gorgeous sets and costumes, which give the affair a certain sense of the Fellini-esque (late Fellini, after he had completely lost his shit and just wallowed in the surreal), but the sheer pointless volume of it rapidly numbs us to any other input. If the purpose was to display the decadence of ancient Rome, or to remind us of its similarities to our modern society, we get the message in the first five minutes. For the other 145, it simply batters us into disbelieving piles of slack-jawed hamburger: shocked not only that someone agreed to put this onscreen, but that such nakedly demagogic button-pushing could become such a frightful bore. I suppose certain college fraternities could make screening it part of their hazing rituals, but beyond that, it exists as nothing more than transgression for transgression's sake -- the cinematic equivalent of a two-headed calf at the county fair.

Interest, however, arises mainly from understanding how rational people could have arrived at such a state, and in that sense, the DVD proves very enlightening. The crux of the problem came down to three violently opposing views from the three most important creative forces: Guccione, whose Penthouse magazine provided the financing; Vidal, whose name originally topped the project (serving as an incentive to sign big stars like McDowell); and Brass, who saw the film taken away from him in post-production and edited without his consent. All three were convinced that theirs was the only way to go, and all three assumed that they had the authority to silence any opposition. To put it mildly, things got out of hand.

Vidal originally conceived the project as a serious statement on the decline of Rome. He claims to have researched the era extensively, and felt that other sword-and-sandal epics never quite had the daring to confront the Bacchanalian excesses that existed during that time. In that sense, he has a point; one thinks of Laurence Olivier's famous line in Spartacus about snails and oysters, or that moment in Gladiator when Oliver Reed casually asks Russell Crowe whether he wants a girl or a boy. Both films hint at monstrous appetites within this culture, but ultimately refrain from delving further. If we're going to discuss those things, the reasoning goes, then let's really discuss them: show them in all their flagrant profanity and then try to discern what they might say about the time, the place, or the human condition in general.

A noble idea. But then you bring in Brass, a director of questionable talents whose improvisational style accentuates the visual over the spoken (emphasizing his camera rather than Vidal's script as the primary creative instrument). Moreover, he viewed the project as more satirical than solemn: a chance to poke fun at the excesses of power in a subversive and inflammatory way. His notions were apparently shared by McDowell, who viewed his character not so much as a madman, but rather a primordial anarchist determined to bring the empire down from the top by pushing every boundary his limitless authority permitted.

Finally, add to the mix an enormously successful sleaze merchant whose stunning financial resources paid for the whole thing... and yet who still couldn't generate either sufficient quantities of taste or appreciable knowledge of filmmaking to set this turkey to wing. Production began at a moment in time when anything seemed possible for a man like Guccione. The immense success of Deep Throat a few years earlier suggested that pornography could make a leap into mainstream sensibilities, and rival publisher Hugh Hefner had scored an artistic coup by financing Roman Polanski's impressive adaptation of Macbeth. To Guccione, Caligula was the instrument to take it all to the next level: mix revered actors with hardcore porn, display a dignified topic in titillating terms, and watch his marginalized red-light industry break through into the annals of artistic legitimacy.

Put those three on a collision course, and you have a disaster of unprecedented proportions: expensive sets, overblown egos, and all manner of nastiness crashing into itself like a pileup at the Indy 500. The Caligula DVD provides a great deal of information on the gritty details, which proves far more interesting than the movie itself. At times, the disc's contributors directly contradict one another, but their varying versions of events slowly help color in the crazed process that led to the film's final form (or forms, as it were). In light of it all, the most sensible figures on display are the actors, who cashed their checks, did their jobs, and got the hell out. Mirren (who played Caligula's wife) recorded her comments shortly after her triumph at the Oscars, and looks back on the experience as a strange and wonderful lark. McDowell cheerfully blames Guccione for the whole mess, but still speaks openly about what he hoped to achieve with the character. Both more or less admit to doing it for the money, and while the titans in charge of the production bled themselves white over credit and purpose, these two quietly survived the debacle and went on to better things.

And if one is to gain something valuable from Caligula, it must come with the help of such insight. The DVD's producers clearly understood what they had on their hands, and they knew how to present it appropriately: talk to the people involved, learn their reasons for doing what they did, and forthrightly ask them if they had totally lost their minds. Within that framework, the experience of viewing it becomes bearable, and even rewarding after a fashion. Failure can be as illuminating to the creative process as success... and they don't make failures any bigger or more obscene than this one. If you're going to pony up for Caligula -- if nagging curiosity demands that you look this particular Gorgon in the face -- then find the three-disc version and take the time to examine the other material it provides. It turns one of the worst moviegoing experiences you'll ever have into... well, nothing pleasant to be sure, but at least an appropriate shield to hide behind when your friends ask, "For the love of God, why?"

Review published 10.24.2007.

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